Is reason overrated?

Carefree, AZ

That we are primarily driven by emotions seems obvious to most of us. But even before Plato some have believed that with a little effort we can – and should – make reason primary.

Is that even possible? Seneca, writing On Anger, says anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Emotions easily override reason. Seneca isn’t necessarily saying that reason can’t redirect emotion, though. But being a Sage is almost impossible.

The elephant and the rider

Not so fast, says Jonathan Haidt. He published The Righteous Mind in 2012. He says his research on moral reasoning shows that moral reasoning is intuitive, or driven by proto-emotional sensibilities that may or may not develop into full blown emotions. And reason’s role is providing excuses after that fact. Haidt quotes David Hume as saying that reason is the servant of the emotions.

Haidt uses the image of a rider on an elephant. Our intuitions and emotions are big and powerful like elephants. And like elephants, emotions are intelligent. But they can be unruly and are sometimes destructive.

The rider can’t totally control the elephant, but a skilled rider can figure out what the elephant wants and try to guide it to a better path. The rider’s most import task, however, is to convince other elephants that this is a good elephant – even if that’s not true. Haidt describes the rider as a PR spokesperson and defense attorney.

The lord of the rings

The self-serving bias – and everyone’s lack of self-awareness regarding it – is well documented in psychology. Within the individual, reason is about self-justification. Conscious reasoning is mainly about persuading ourselves and others that we’re good, regardless of the truth.

Haidt points to a debate between Plato and his brother Glaucon. Plato thought it’s better to be good than to have a good reputation. But Glaucon claimed that people care more about their reputations than actually being good, so the only way to really be good is to be held accountable to others.

Glaucon even said that if you had a magic ring that could make you invisible then you’d become evil because you could do anything with zero accountability. J.R.R. Tolkien, in writing The Lord of the Rings, seemed to agree.

Most psychologists side with Glaucon, but ancient Stoic philosophers often sided with Plato. Epictetus, however, adds an important caveat. He says we get confidence and caution backwards. We shouldn’t worry about things we don’t control. But we should be cautious, rather than confident, about things that are up to us such as our chosen beliefs, and deliberate thoughts and actions.

Epictetus wrote, “To act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.” He fully understood how easily we let the elephant steer while the rider believes the lie that it is in control.

Reason is indifferent to virtue

It’s noteworthy that Haidt isn’t saying reason is useless. Without reason we wouldn’t have modern science. And reason, after reflecting on a situation, can come up with better ways of handling things, which in turn might influence future behavior.

How we think about things is central to Stoic philosophy. But in contrast to the Stoics, Haidt says it’s a delusion to think that reason is our most noble attribute. Put differently, reason is indifferent to virtue and vice. Further, reason detached from emotion is psychopathy.

But in Stoic philosophy virtue must be reason’s goal. And by virtue Stoics mean not just ethics, but excellence in general. That’s also why Stoicism values cultivating positive emotions.

Reason is a social activity

No other animal is capable of reason like we are. The trick is to use reason well. Haidt says that reason is used best when we know that knowledgeable people will be made aware of our choices, but we don’t know if they’ll approve.

Stoics also believe that being social creatures is central to human nature – no other species cooperates on the scale human beings do. So reason, virtue/excellent, and sociability are essential to each other.

The Stoic focus on sociability shows that Stoics have never thought that most of us can be islands of virtue unto ourselves. But our desire for reputation questions the Stoic claim that virtue is the only thing we need to be happy. Maybe that’s why the Sage is a mythical figure – and no Stoic philosopher ever claimed to be a Sage.

Marcus Aurelius: Reason & the mind

Marcus Aurelius on reason and the mind: “It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them – and this you can erase immediately” (8.47). 

Flagstaff, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

You are what you think

“All is as thinking makes it so” – Monimus the Cynic (2.15). The mind has no needs except for those it creates. It is undisturbed, except for its own disturbances. It knows no obstructions, except those from within (7.16). It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22).

Respect your ability to control your thoughts – it’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions (3.9). The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts (5.16).

Disciplining your mind

Four habits of thought to watch for, and erase from your mind when you catch them: Thoughts that are unnecessary, destructive to those around you, saying something you don’t really believe, and allowing self-indulgence to override the more divine part of you (11.19).

Two kinds of readiness are constantly needed: to do only what the logos of authority and law directs, with the good of human beings in mind; and to reconsider your position, when someone can set you straight or convert you to his. But your conversion should always rest on a conviction that it’s right, or benefits others and nothing else — not because it’s more appealing or more popular (4.12).

When you feel pain be sure it doesn’t disgrace you or degrade your intelligence — that it doesn’t keep you from acting rationally or unselfishly (7.64).

Remove your judgement of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you has a problem then it can form that judgement for itself (8.40).

It’s not external things that trouble you but your judgement of them — and this you can erase immediately. If the problem is something in your own character, who’s stopping you from setting your mind straight? And if it’s that you’re not doing something you think you should be, why not just do it? “But there are insurmountable obstacles.” Then it’s not a problem. The cause of your inaction lies outside you (8.47).

Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference (11.16). The cucumber is bitter? Throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Go around them. That’s all you need to know, nothing more. Don’t demand to know why such things exist (8.50).

Reason has no obstacles outside of yourself

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it — turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself — so too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal (8.35).

Mind and reason have the power, by their nature and their will, to move through every obstacle. Remember the easy capacity for reason to carry through all things, and stop looking for anything more (10.33).

Our inward power, when it obeys nature, accommodates itself to what it faces, to what is possible. It pursues its aims as circumstances allow. It turns obstacles into fuel (4.1).

Pride is a master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when it has you in its spell (6.13).

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds (6.53).

Reason is aligned with nature

To a rational being, an action that conflicts with reason is unnatural (7.11). The right path for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or obscure impressions, to direct its impulses toward social action, and to direct its desires and aversions only to things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it (8.7).

A healthy pair of eyes should see everything and not say, “No! Too bright!” A healthy sense of hearing or smell should be prepared for any sound or scent. So too a healthy mind should be prepared for anything. Worries such as, “Are my children all right?” or “Everyone must approve of me” are like eyes that can only stand pale colors, or teeth that can handle only mush (10.35).

To erase false perceptions, tell yourself: I have it in me to keep my soul from evil, lust and all confusion. To see things as they are and treat them as they deserve. Don’t overlook this innate ability (8.29).

All is in order whenever something can be done in accordance with reason, which is shared by gods and men. There’s the possibility of benefit when things move in step with nature, so there’s nothing to fear (7.53).

Reason & our shared humanity

All rational things are related, and to care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinions. We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are. Care nothing for their praise if they can’t even meet their own standards (3.4). Don’t be put off by other people’s comments and criticism. If it’s right to say or do, then it’s the right thing for you to do or say (5.3).

If thought is something we share, then so is reason — what makes us reasoning beings. If so, then the reason that tells us what to do and what not to do is also shared. And if so, we share a common law and thus are fellow citizens — fellow citizens of something. In that case, our state must be the world. What other entity could all of humanity belong to (4.4).

What is rational in different beings is related like the individual limbs of a single being, and meant to function as a unit.This will be clearer to you if you remind yourself: I am a single limb of a larger rational body (7.13).

Reason is like sunlight

The sun’s light extends extends in a straight line, striking any object that stands in its way, but not the space beyond it. It stays there without vanishing or falling away. That’s what the universal mind is like — not an exhaustible stream but a constant radiation. There’s nothing forceful or violent about its impact, nor does it fall away. Rather, it illuminates whatever receives it. Anything unreflective will deprive itself of that light (8.57).

Reason and spiritual growth

Nothing is so conducive to spiritual growth as the capacity for logical and accurate analysis of everything that happens to us. See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare — as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name — the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return (3.11).

Just as those who try block your progress along the straight path of reason can’t keep you from doing what’s right, so too you must not lose your good will toward them (11.9).

The rational soul

The rational soul is capable of self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants. It reaps its own harvest and reaches its intended goal no matter where the limit of its life is set. It delves into the endlessness of time to extend its grasp and comprehension of the periodic births and rebirths that the world goes through (11.1).

The rational soul knows that those who come after us will see nothing different, that those who came before us saw no more than we do. It has affection for its neighbors, truthfulness, and humility. It doesn’t place anything above itself — which is characteristic of law as well. There’s difference between the logos of rationality and that of justice (11.1).




Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence



Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind


Virtue, good, & evil


Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear



I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.